Whilst many were treating the Coventry Half Marathon as a tune up race as part of the preparation for their main target this spring (namely London), this was actually my goal race and all training in the build up to March 24 was for a sub-1:40 PB attempt.
It’s no surprise then, that I was feeling a little nervous in the days leading in to race day. Sub-1:40 has been a goal of mine for over 18 months and, as I don’t race all that often, it’s not like I get that many chances to attempt it. Whereas a parkrun PB can be attempted weekly, this was only my third half marathon in those 18 months, so there was quite a bit of self-imposed pressure applied.
Race day is often meticulously planned out. I work out what time I’d like to be lined up on the start line for (usually with 15-20 minutes to spare before the gun) and then work backwards with what I need/would like to do prior to the race. Toilet trip, warm up, bag drop, toilet trip, casual wander around the start and finish areas, working backwards from my ideal line up time. I knew parking would be an issue with the road closures, particularly with over 4,000 runners expected. I therefore decided to park at my mum’s house, which was around 1.5 miles from the start, so I had to factor in the walk too. This, along with the jobs that needed completing before even leaving home, meant an unsociable alarm time of 5:45.
Everything went perfectly according to plan, leaving home at 6:30, leaving my mums at 7:00 and lining up on the start line at 8:15. I was ready! Coventry Live even caught a perfect photo of me being ‘ready’ on the start line. Focus and determination…
Mentally, I had split the race up into several sections.
Mile 1 – Clear the traffic
With more than 4,000 runners, the first mile was always going to be a tricky one to negotiate. Unlike Stratford last year, there were clearly defined pens at the start based on your expected finish time, but people are optimistic and often don’t start where they should. As an example, I saw an old school friend at the start, about 20 metres ahead of me, who eventually finished up over 15 minutes behind me. Whether it’s a parkrun or a half marathon, the start always seems to involve dodging traffic to get clear and into a stride, and that’s not because I start further back than I need to. I placed myself in the correct pen, closer to the 1:30 pacer than the 1:45 pacer. Nevertheless, the start was still congested, although not as bad as I was expecting. A wide start meant plenty of space for overtaking. The photo below shows that it was busy, but there was still enough space to not get bogged down. I was still keen to get out of the way quickly and into a bit of free space, but I didn’t want to start too fast. I left it half a mile before taking a pace check, to ensure that I didn’t end up unnecessarily fluctuating trying to get it on target. 7:15/mile, a bit too fast. It’s hard to tell within the first mile whether a pace is sustainable for another 13 miles, so rather than backing off and breaking stride, I decided to continue as I was, knowing that undulation in the course would allow me to naturally come back to my goal pace. That first mile came in at 7:14.
Miles 2 – 5 – Settle in and consolidate pace
After the first mile, my aim was to get settled into race pace and tick off the miles. There were quite a few little hills at this stage, but nothing significant and each one was almost immediately followed by an equal decline. Losing a bit of time at the start of each mile was fine as I was making it back over the second half. It was at around 3.5 – 4 miles when I first wondered if my pace was sustainable. You can tell yourself as much as you like that “you’ve trained for this” and “you can do this” but when you’re pushing harder than you would ideally like, and breathing slightly heavier than you would ideally like whilst still in the first third of a half marathon, you do start to question your own positive thinking. As it turned out, I was heading up a gradual incline, and my breathing and pace settled once the terrain levelled out. Miles 2 – 5 came in at 7:33, 7:27, 7:33 and 7:34. Slightly out from the targeted 7:30, but nothing to be concerned about, pace wise, at this stage. The concern came from a bit of a hip issue that began at the end of the fifth mile.
Miles 6 – 8 – Dig in
Now out of the City and onto the country lanes, I knew miles 6 to 8 were going to be tough going, and they certainly lived up to expectation. Mile 6 started the section with a 23m climb and, unlike the earlier miles where equivalent downhills allowed me to make up time, this time the course was only going in one direction – 7:48. At this point my left hip was causing a bit of discomfort, but that is all that it was at this stage, as I took on a gel in preparation for the next couple of miles. Mile 7 continued climbing, with an unexpected out and back section leading into a much-needed downhill. Not quite enough though to get back on pace, 7:44. Aiming for 7:30’s made progress checking light work – 2 miles every 15 minutes. Even when tired and racing, with your mind wandering, this was still easy to work out and I quickly calculated that I was just under half a minute behind on pace, although I knew that the biggest climb of the race was about to begin. I had done this hill a couple of times before, so I knew exactly what to expect, how long it lasted and how tough it was. I knew I had to dial back the pace, but I didn’t want to do it too much and leave myself with an insurmountable deficit. In reality, there wasn’t a lot that I could do about it. As I tried, and failed, to hang on to a fellow Rugby and Northampton club runner, I just had to get to the end and hope that I could make up whatever I had lost later on – 8:12.
Miles 9 – 11 – Push it
Again, from experience, I knew that miles 9 to 11 were almost entirely downhill and that this would be where I would need to make up for lost time during the rural section of the course. The turn of mile 8/9 was exactly on a right turn, out of a single-track country lane and onto a road which lead back into the city. It was also exactly on the tip of the highest point of the race. My pre-race plan was to give myself 30 seconds here to catch my breath before needing to open up and head for the city centre as quickly as I could. As I turned the corner though, there was a mass of local support, including some children not much older than my daughter shouting words of encouragement. I didn’t take those 30 seconds, picking up the adrenaline and taking off as soon as I turned the corner. I glanced down at my watch to find my pace sub-7:00. In an area of considerable tree coverage though, I certainly didn’t want to slow down. My hip was now causing me some real issues. It felt like it was locking up with each left foot strike. There was also a pain on my right side, although I didn’t know where this was originating from. It was like a shooting pain somewhere in my thigh, between my knee and my hip, but I couldn’t tell you where it started and where it ended. With nothing specific planned after this race though, if I got injured here then it wouldn’t be the end of the world, so I pushed on, with the local support growing as I got closer and closer to the city centre. 7:23, 7:31 and 7:29. I wasn’t quite making up for lost time, and was now just under a minute behind, but I was back on pace, which was promising at least.
Miles 12 –
13.1 13.2 Bring it home
To say the final two miles were undulating would be an understatement. Starting off with a steep decline, mile 12 turned left, heading towards the finish the same way in which we had come from the start. This brought a short, sharp uphill followed by an equal downhill. So again, time lost at the beginning of the mile was made up towards the end of it – 7:28! Mile 13 was similar. A short, but tough, climb lead into a slightly longer downhill section. I looked at my watch, 12.5 miles covered with 1:35 elapsed. Providing the course was on distance, sub-1:40 was absolutely doable. With pain in almost every foot strike, I simply gave it everything. There was no sprinting, not just yet, but I was really pushing. If the photo below looks like I’m in pain, it’s because I absolutely was!
About a minute later it became clear that the course was not on distance. Or should I say my watch was not correctly synced with the course. Was 1:40 still possible? I really wasn’t sure. I was trying to do a bit of maths but was really struggling. I was flipping between “I’ve got no chance” to “I’ve got this”. I decided to stop trying to figure it out, just push as much as I could and be confident at the end that I had given it everything, regardless of the time. My watch bleeped for 13 miles a fair distance before the course marker. I was sprinting down to the final bend and saw my mum on the corner with my son and daughter, all shouting and cheering. I gave a quick wave and thumbs up before turning onto the finishing straight, and possibly the worst one you’ve ever seen. It was not only uphill, but on a cobbled street. I looked up at the finish, 30 metres away. I looked at my watch, 1:39:45. I treated it like a hill rep and sprinted for the top. Another quick check of my watch, 1:39:50. My left foot contacted the chip pad on the floor, and I stopped the watch, almost immediately breaking stride into a limped walk. I looked to see my time, waiting for it to cycle through the stats, 13.22 miles… 7:34/mile pace… 1:40:00 elapsed time! I couldn’t believe it. No pausing early, I stopped that watch right on top of the pad and the time read 1:40 dead.
Chip time? 1:40:01! Ok, so officially I still haven’t achieved sub-1:40, but who’s arguing over two seconds? Certainly not me. I had trained for 13.1 miles at a pace of 7:30/mile and had achieved a pace of 7:34/mile over 13.22 miles. I crossed the half distance point of 13.1 miles in 1:39:15. In the end then, I came away from the race feeling happy after a fantastically organised event, although whilst many of my fellow club runners turned their attention to London, I was left with wondering what next…